August 4, 2019 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

Examples of federal agencies ignoring and suppressing science are alarmingly common these days, but Adam Federman’s investigation into the Department of the Interior’s actions regarding the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is especially breathtaking. In a partnership between POLITICO Magazine and Type Investigations, Federman documents the agency’s rush to claim that drilling in the Refuge can be done with relatively little harm to a sensitive and important ecosystem — over the objections of its own experts.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge supports polar bears, migratory caribou, and Native communities whose way of life hinges on this wildlife. The Gwich’in Steering Committee explains:

Nine thousand Gwich’in people make their home on or near the migratory route of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, and have depended on caribou for their subsistence way of life for thousands of years. Today, as in the days of their ancestors, the caribou is still vital for food, clothing, tools, and are a source of respect and spiritual guidance for the Gwich’in.

The herd’s primary calving ground sits atop a large supply of oil, which developers have wanted to drill for decades. In 1987, an assessment by scientists with DOI’s Fish and Wildlife Service found that oil and gas activities would have significant impacts on wildlife. “FWS also concluded that development would have a ‘major adverse effect on subsistence lifestyles’ of Native communities and that the ‘wilderness character of the coastal plain would be irretrievably lost,'” Federman writes.

Past attempts to open this sensitive area to drilling failed, but the Republican tax law passed in late 2017 included a provision from Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to sell oil and gas leases in the Refuge. Federman reports that DOI is in a hurry to get those leases sold before the end of Trump’s current term:

Today, [David] Bernhardt is the secretary of the Interior, driving energy policy in the Arctic and beyond. And although the tax bill gave DOI four years to complete the first sale, top officials at the department, including Bernhardt and [DOI official Joe] Balash, are determined to get it done in half that time, before the end of 2019.

The only thing standing in the way of establishing an oil and gas leasing program is the environmental review process, which includes an assessment of the proposed seismic surveys and an evaluation of the impacts of leasing and future development on the refuge. Environmental reviews are a standard part of oil and gas drilling elsewhere in Alaska, and normally, such impact statements for ecologically sensitive and undeveloped land would take at least two to three years—or even longer, according to three former DOI officials interviewed for this article. Instead, the administration is compressing it into just over one year.

Even in its rushed form, the environmental review is yielding results that DOI officials apparently don’t like — so they’re altering or ignoring them. Federman writes:

Documents leaked to POLITICO Magazine and Type Investigations reveal that the work of career scientists has at times been altered or disregarded to underplay the potential impact of oil and gas development on the coastal plain. Moreover, DOI has decided it will undertake no new studies as part of the current review process, despite scientists’ concerns that key data is years out of date or doesn’t exist.

At least two BLM employees, according to the documents, have submitted strongly worded complaints as part of the administrative record alleging that key findings in their work on the environmental assessment for seismic surveys were altered or omitted. In one case, according to the leaked documents, a biologist’s conclusion was reversed from saying the impacts of seismic surveys on polar bears were uncertain or potentially harmful to a finding that the impact would be “less than significant”—an important distinction in environmental law. In another complaint, a BLM anthropologist was surprised to find that large portions of her analysis of potential impacts on native communities had been removed. A third BLM scientist, who studies fish and water resources, noted that “fundamental inaccuracies” had been introduced into his section without his knowledge. … Another career employee was surprised to find that entire paragraphs on potential impacts to native communities, including environmental justice concerns, had been scrubbed from her analysis.

Agency employees have objected to alteration and omission of their findings. “I know there is likely nothing that can be done but I would like it to be in the admin record that I do not agree with this wording change or with the new conclusion,” wrote BLM wildlife biologist Debora Nigro. Her work found that seismic activity could negatively affect the southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population.

Although many members of affected Alaska Native communities oppose the oil and gas development because of impacts on the environment, others want to see it happen because Native corporations stand to benefit. Instead of being up front about valuing potential economic development and many more barrels of oil above an ecosystem and a traditional way of life, though, DOI is altering and suppressing scientists’ findings in order to make it seem like the outcome they want doesn’t come with such a steep cost.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Trump’s DOI ignore science that could have shown that their extractive activities were harming public health. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine were conducting DOI-funded studies on the health impacts of mountaintop removal mining on Appalachian communities and on how safety of offshore oil and gas operations could be improved, but DOI ordered both of them halted before researchers could complete their work.

The Trump administration isn’t the first to try to bury or ignore evidence it didn’t want to acknowledge, but its brazen disregard for evidence makes it particularly urgent for Congress take action to defend federal science. The Scientific Integrity Act, introduced by Representative Paul Tonko (D-New York) and Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) earlier this year, would take an important step toward ensuring that scientists at federal agencies can do their jobs and the public can learn of their findings. I’ll always be grateful for scientists who register their objections when agencies try to twist or bury findings, and for journalists who investigate and bring such problems to light, but we need more than that. If you’ve thought about getting in touch with your member of Congress over the August recess, consider asking them if they are concerned about scientific integrity problems at DOI and other agencies, and whether they support the Scientific Integrity Act.

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